I first met Bella early one warm, bright spring morning, a few weeks before her first birthday. I had been flicking through an equestrian magazine the day before when an advert caught and held my eye. It had a photograph of a sturdy black yearling filly with a wise, honest expression way beyond her years. All I knew about Dales was that they were compact weight carriers who combined a calm, placid temperament with a flashy trot and a long flowing mane and tail. I decided to go and meet her and that has to be one of the best decisions I have ever made!
My late partner, David, and I travelled to the stud where she was born expecting to see a wild, scruffy, muddy youngster in a field but when we arrived she was tied to a rail outside a row of stables, polished and gleaming, resting a back foot and dozing in the sun. All the other horses were already out, enjoying themselves in the fields, but she was perfectly at ease on her own, relaxed and self contained, waiting patiently while her future was decided, and I knew straight away that there was no way I could go home without making her mine!
Bella is a Dales Pony, a very rare breed native to Britain. The breed originated in the late seventeenth century when the ponies were bred as pack horses, to carry lead from the mines high up in the hills of Northern England down to the coast. They were also used by farmers in that area for all the draft work on their farms, and to provide the farmers with transport to market and entertainment, in the form of trotting races and carrying farmers out hunting where they proved to be safe, agile jumpers. The breed is aptly known as ‘The Great Allrounder’ and they are renowned for their strength, hardiness, soundness, stamina, good nature and courage. Sadly, and to owners of the breed, inexplicably, they are now an endangered breed with less than five hundred breeding females left in the UK.
I checked her over, asked to see her walking and trotting, and had a look at her mum and dad. Mum, Daloumie Melody, was out in the field with her latest foal and was too busy grazing to take much notice of us but Bella’s sire, Wolsey Master Oliver, was very friendly and interested in us. I thought he was extremely handsome and I found out at a later date, when we were lucky enough to be taken out in his carriage for a drive, that he has the most amazing, passage-like trot. When I saw him in action I imagined how wonderful that trot must feel to sit on and prayed that one day Bella would trot like that. He also had Bella’s calm and wise eyes. I was totally smitten with the first Dales Ponies I had ever met and made Bella’s owners an offer straight away. If they had decided to double the asking price I would have found the money somehow!
Bella had never been anywhere or seen anything other than the horses, people and dogs at the stud where she was born. She had never travelled before but when, a few days later, we returned with the lorry to collect her she walked trustingly straight up the ramp and travelled the two hours to her new home like a seasoned professional, munching hay all the way. She remained cool and calm when we unloaded her, walking slowly and carefully down the ramp beside me. On route to the yard we had to pass, among other things, several pigs with piglets, a couple of calves and a goat who just happened to be standing on top of the muckheap, all of which she barely gave a second glance. I couldn't believe that a youngster could be so laid back and confident and I knew I’d found the right horse! In all the years we've spent together since then she has never given me cause to doubt it.
I was a bit unsure who to turn her out with as my two other mares where quite elderly and I didn't think they would appreciate a youngster disturbing their retirement. My only other choice was my homebred gelding, Russell, who was very sociable with other horses but I was a bit worried that he wouldn't be the best influence as he can be very spooky and suspicious about life. I needn't have worried; Bella makes her own mind up about things and she was the calming influence that he needed. He soon got fed up with being shown up by a yearling!
I put them in adjacent paddocks to begin with and Bella did plenty of squealing and kicking the fence but within a day they were back scratching over the fence so I thought it would be safe to put them in together. Bella tried to convince Russell he should do as she told him but even Russell isn't that much of a push over and quickly put her in her correct yearling place! They forged a friendship that has lasted all these years and, although they now have different grazing requirements, and so different turnout companions these days, she still whickers to him whenever she sees him and will still share her food with him when they are together. For Bella that has to be true love!